The little Spider that could have spared Skoda
Goodwood’s annual press day for the Festival of Speed is famously bigger than the original Festival.lalways arrive in the hope of being dropped into something interesting for a run up the hill. No disappointments this year when I was ushered towards a sleek ’50s sports car which, to my great surprise, turned out to be a Skoda.
Shamed as I am to admit it, I knew nothing about this pretty little spider but was told it had been designed for Le Mans and just three were built in 1958, of which two survive. Stuck behind the Iron Curtain competing successfully at local level when it should have been on the big stage, it made it to France when intrepidly driven out of captivity from Czechoslovakia to the UK, where it’s since stayed.
Beneath that pretty shape lies a tubular steel chassis that looks large and heavy for such a small car, but what caught my eye was its 1100cc engine. With twin cams, twin sparks and twin carbs it must have been state-ofthe-art for its class in the era.
Shovelled aboard (onlookers said it looked like a pedal car with all 6ff 4in of me at its helm) I was shown how to start it and leff to my own devices.You can’t divine the true character of a car based on under a minute at full chat, but I found the engine produces enough steam to provide unlikely performance even with me and a similarly large passenger on board, aided by a crisp rear-mounted five-speed dog-leg transmission which is more than you might find in a Testa Rossa of the same age. It seemed to handle nicely, steering accurately and free of body roll. But it’s as well I tried the brakes before the start otherwise I might have become the infamous Molecomb corner’s latest victim. Even by the standards expected of 1950s drums, it barely stopped at all.
What a shame this Skoda never had the competition history its talents deserved. If it had done as well as its specification suggests, it might have led to other things and a rather different view of the company in later years. Who knows, it might have even saved Skoda some or all of those jokes.
Real fun in a 911 and Thurgood’s historic series
Best drive of the year so far came not in some slice of exotica but my old 911, a 1981 SC that someone once lovingly turned into a fairly credible RS replica, while mildly modifying its 3-litre engine. The destination was Silverstone and the media launch of Julius Thurgood’s Historic Racing Drivers Club.
Its about 120 miles from home, through the Cotswolds, and if you leave at 6am on a Saturday you can have that part of England pretty much to yourself. Keep to the yellow roads, respect village speed limits and you can do what you like without fear of cameras, traffic or dirty looks.
The good news is that Thurgood has all but filled his grids for his inaugural race meeting at Brands, which will have run by the time you read this. In an age where too many historic racers take themselves a bit too seriously, his idea of fun-loving, affordable, grassroots racing is just what’s needed. Overwhelmingly, were a bunch of middle-aged men looking for some weekend recreation in the company of like-minded individuals. We should fix photos of our greying, paunchy selves to the dashboard to remind us who’s doing the driving.
Worth splashing out for Aston’s latest effort
Aston Martin’s attempts to wring ever more models from the same platform have now resulted in the Vantage S which, if looks were the only guide, seems a poor excuse for slapping over £10,000 on the price of the standard car.
What, then, is your £102,500 buying? Well, there’s another 10bhp made meaningful only by being coupled to a 30kg drop in weight. There are bigger brakes, revised suspension, fatter tyres, quicker steering, and, significantly, a new seven-speed Graziano paddle-shift gearbox.
It seems even better value when you drive it. I slithered around the Ascari Race Resort where it felt so much more taut, responsive and communicative than the standard car, with no compromise to comfort or civility.
I was also amazed by the way that its tyres withstood the punishment. Ten years ago if you drove a 1600kg car with this kind of power as hard and as long as you liked, you’d need specialist rubber. No longer: the Aston came on standard Bridgestones and, according to its engineers, so long as they’re scrubbed when new, they’ll put up with as much punishment as you can reasonably chuck at them.